Readers of our account of a previously secret 1964 nuclear missile accident near Vale might wonder how we got the story.
I formerly did freelance travel writing for a company that owned the website SouthDakota.com. I no longer do any work for the company, but when a reader posts a comment about a story of mine on the company’s website, the comment still comes to me by email.
On Aug. 4 of this year, I received an email containing a reader comment on a 2009 story I wrote about the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Wall. The comment was from Robert Hicks, who said he wondered why so little was publicly known about a 1964 nuclear missile accident near Vale. The comment included several sentences of detail about the accident.
“My proof is the medal I was awarded after the incident,” Hicks wrote.
I searched the internet for mentions of the accident, asked a few people if they’d ever heard of it, and did a search of our archives. Finding only a couple of brief mentions of the accident on some niche websites, I began to realize that I had stumbled onto an untold story.
I emailed Hicks, who goes by “Bob,” to ask for his phone number and to explain that I was interested in interviewing him for a story in the Journal.
During our subsequent phone conversation, the 73-year-old Hicks, of Cibolo, Texas, spoke deliberately in a slight Texas drawl. He was incredibly nonchalant — at least from my civilian perspective — about his role in responding to the accident and the danger he had faced.
Hicks also sent me, at my request, images of the Air Force Commendation Medal certificate and citation he received for his role in the accident response.
Later, on a whim, I contacted Hicks again and encouraged him to let me know if he was going to be in South Dakota anytime soon, or to consider making a special trip.
He flew up in late September, and we visited the former silo site near Vale where the accident happened, which is now owned by John Stolle, of Sturgis Honey, who showed us around. We also visited the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where the superintendent, Eric Leonard, granted us permission to go underground at the historic site’s preserved missile silo.
One of the people who joined us at the historic site was Paul Handshue, a former missile maintainer like Hicks. Handshue invited Hicks to join a Facebook group for Ellsworth missile wing alumni.
After Hicks joined the Facebook group, he was soon contacted by David Stumpf, an Arizona man who has written extensively about nuclear weapons and is working on a book about the Minuteman missile program. Stumpf had come across some information about the 1964 South Dakota accident and had obtained a redacted 65-page report about it through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015. He shared the report with Hicks, and Hicks shared it with me.
My own Freedom of Information Act request had curiously produced only a paragraph of information. I called the Air Force office in New Mexico that handled my request and learned that I should've been given the same 65 pages.
I did additional research and several more interviews, but the story I wrote about the accident relied mostly on my interviews with Hicks, our visit to the former silo site and the preserved silo (which looks much the same as the former silo where the accident happened), and the Air Force accident report that was first obtained by Stumpf.
And that’s how the details of a 53-year-old nuclear missile accident were finally revealed.